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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drinking Tea at a Possible Murder Scene

APBritish police vans outside the Millennium Hotel in London, where Litvinenko is known to have met Lugovoi.
LONDON -- The small bar was filled with the chatter of noisy businessmen. A gaggle of middle-aged women sipped cups of tea.

From the relaxed atmosphere, few would suspect that former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko might have been poisoned last November in the darkest corner to the far left of the bar, not far from the table where a mother and child were playing happily.

The Pine Bar, in the lobby of Central London's Millennium Hotel, was for a brief period at the center of world media attention, a mammoth police investigation and an international diplomatic dispute.

On Monday, nearly a year after it was sealed off by the Health Protection Agency for nuclear remediation, the purported murder scene was once again opened to the public.

"I have seen everything in my hotels, but this was unheard of," said Stefan Buchs, general manager of Millennium Hotel.

With its slick leather chairs, black glass chandeliers and generic gloom, the Pine Bar is like any number of lobby joints in countless hotels around the world. It was here, in the early afternoon of Nov. 1 2006, that Litvinenko met fellow Russians Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun for half an hour over green tea and gin. Several hours after, Litvinenko complained that he was feeling sick. Twenty-two days after he was dead, poisoned by polonium-210.

At 4 a.m. on Nov. 24, Buchs received a call from Scotland Yard. The British investigators had reason to believe that it was during that meeting at the Pine Bar that Litvinenko had been poisoned.

Nobby Andrade, who has worked in the Pine Bar for 27 years, grinned when asked how it felt to be back working in the bar. Andrade served Litvinenko during the meeting with Lugovoi and Kovtun, and he was exposed to polonium-210 radiation. In fact, seven Pine Bar employees and Buchs tested positive for radiation but all are now back at work in time for the reopening. "It's beautiful, and we are too," said Andrade, who originally comes from Portugal.

The staff seem proud of the new Pine Bar, which has gone through a ?230,000 ($480,000) refurbishment since the Health Protection Agency gave it the all clear in March.

Health officials say that the staff face a slightly increased risk of cancer in the long term but are not in any imminent danger.

Fears persist, however, that the bar could turn into a magnet for conspiracy groupies and curious tourists, becoming a ghoulish Mecca in London.

Buchs said he suspected that some visitors might want to hear about that fatal November day, sit in the corner on the far left where Litvinenko and his acquaintances sat and talk to the staff about the possible effects of their exposure to the radioactive substance.

The Pine Bar is just one in a long list of locations where traces of polonium were found, stretching from a local London strip-club to Arsenal's Emirates Stadium and as far afield as Hamburg and Moscow.

The Litvinenko Justice Foundation web site, created by Litvinenko's widow, Marina, offers details of the grim itinerary. A stone's throw from the Millennium Hotel, workers come and go from an office building that Lugovoi and Kovtun visited before their meeting with Litvinenko. Ten minutes' walk away, diners are back in the Itsu sushi bar on Piccadilly where Litvinenko met with Italian Mario Scaramella that day.

One person who won't be coming back to the bar any time soon is Lugovoi. In May, British investigators charged Lugovoi with Litvinenko's murder and demanded his extradition. After Russian authorities refused, a diplomatic dispute broke out.

For now the staff at the Pine Bar are trying to put the tragic, convoluted story behind them. Amid the clinking of teacups, however, traces of memories can apparently linger on longer than polonium.